The Gift of the Outsider
The first person I texted the morning after the election was my gay Muslim friend.
“I am sorry.”
He replied, “Thanks. We’re in this together.”
I hadn’t even voted for Trump. As a black woman, my demographic overwhelmingly wasn't about that. When polled, 90% of black women said they planned to vote and 94% of us voted for Clinton. But, I am not only a black woman; I am also an evangelical Christian and I felt it’d be good for my friend to hear those words of concern from one of us that morning when what he was used to hearing from us sounded, to him, like ill will.
If there is anything my blackness has conditioned me to do, it is to think in terms of we and not I. Call it the gift of the outsider.
In This Together
My friend and I don’t appear to have much in common. He is Muslim, I am Christian. He is male, I am female. He is gay, I am straight. We are, however, both "hyphenated Americans" and, as minorities, we bear similar scars from others’ phobias and -isms. We come to each other’s defense. When I’m most vulnerable to feeling isolated, I often feel more “in it together” with him than with my white Christian male friends: This summer, when Rep. Steve King asked, rhetorically, what non-Europeans have contributed to civilization, my friend didn't merely disagree with his remarks--he nearly exhausted himself defending the contributions of people of color to society, showing an impressive depth of knowledge about black history. Without being asked, he would offer support after tragedy struck the black community. And rather than complain about protests inconveniencing his commute, he would join them. What was perhaps most comforting was that I did not have to explain to him why and when I could use support in the first place.
When grief and injustice strike the black community, finding a white Christian shoulder to help carry that burden feels like the search for Atlantis, so I’ve learned to stop looking. Instead, I turn to fellow Christians of color—any color—for support.
With my white brothers and sisters in Christ, it rarely feels like we're in this together. Yet the command for this could not be clearer: “Carry each others’ burdens and in this way you fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2) In fact, it feels like not even the normal rules apply. When my grandmother died earlier this year, I got sympathy. When a black person is wrongfully killed somewhere across the country, my appeals for support are often met with silence or defensiveness. Perhaps they don’t understand that this, too, is a special and personal type of grief. John Metta said it best:
“To understand, you have to know that Black people think in terms of Black people. We don’t see a shooting of an innocent Black child in another state as something separate from us because we know viscerally that it could be our child, our parent, or us, that is shot.”
The death my grandmother died is still 50 years in my future; the death of Renisha McBride could be mine tomorrow.
The U.S. church does not usually do “we’re in this together” well when it comes to race. But we need to. Not for my feelings’ sake but for the sake of the church itself and its witness to the world. Frankly, neither my feelings nor yours should be my principle concern. What I should care more about than either of those is the body of Christ. And while society might not have lavished opportunities on my white Christian brothers and sisters to naturally develop empathy as generously as it has given to blacks and other people of color and minorities, God nevertheless demands it of all his people.
A Church Divided
Martin Luther King, Jr. called it a “shameful tragedy” that the most segregated hour in America was eleven o’clock Sunday morning. Though the bond between Christians should be stronger than any other, race divides the church even when people of color show up and nest ourselves amongst the “other.” Often, by choosing to worship in majority white churches, we waive access to support we might more easily get elsewhere. A friend once suggested I find more black friends to get the support that I needed. What I need more than more black friends is for the church to be the church. While I may enjoy common interests and diversions with my white friends, that “brother born of adversity” is nowhere to be found when that adversity is of the racial injustice variety. The friend who is loving at all other times suddenly strains and fails to endure all things and not be proud or self-seeking.
Towards the end of his public ministry, Jesus prayed for his believers “that all of them may be one.” Why? So that the world may believe that God had sent him. The world’s belief in his ministry would hinge on our unity. That he would stake so much on his church coming together—especially to show it’s tensile strength where it was most likely to fracture—confirms its strategic importance in advancing the gospel. Unity advances God’s kingdom; disunity is a coveted win for the enemy. To destroy the church’s witness, undermine its unity.
We would do well to remember that on earth we work for God’s campaign and we are His ground team.
The Bond of Peace
“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”
Paul says that peace and unity are of a kind. And Jesus, opening his sermon on the mount, called the peacemakers blessed, for they will be called children of God.
Active conflict is not the only way to display disunity. In fact, the Israelites were thrice rebuked for a more pernicious and deceitful threat: false peace. The Lord came down hard on them in Jeremiah:
“They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace. Are they ashamed of their detestable conduct? No, they have no shame at all; they do not even know how to blush.”
To the wounded today this slipshod bandaging takes many shapes: Accusing others of making everything about race. Claiming racism doesn't exist. False equivalencies. Attempting to disprove prejudice through tokenism. Further burdening the marginalized by making them responsible for reconciling on the terms of the empowered. Disinterest. Complacency. Complicity. Defensiveness. Silence. Retreating to the comfort of privilege. Making light of the invisible weight of otherness. Insisting you have what you have through sheer effort and determination alone. Praising--and taking for granted--the forgiveness of the aggrieved while not demanding the repentance of the aggressors. Extending the benefit of the doubt to only those who look like you. Questioning the legitimacy of any experience that differs from yours. Resisting rebuke. Refusal to open your “I” to the Jesus-affirming fellowship of “we.”
These are neither the words or actions of peace-loving people but of comfort-loving people. Woe to those who are comfortable.
Ironically, “we” thinking is not uncommon amongst my nonreligious liberal peers. They, though unbound by Biblical mandate and unaided by the Holy Spirit, carry not just my burdens but the burdens of others who in many ways are not like them. I've long wondered why so many who don’t know God pursue racial justice with such vigor, yet we who find both reason and resource in Christ do not.
Sorry But Not Guilty
Maybe it’s just me. I come from a military family and when I lived in China, I befriended a woman from Hiroshima. When I first met her, I felt awkward, even though I hadn’t personally dropped a bomb on her hometown. Later when I visited Hiroshima with her, I was translating a travel guide from English for her as we created our itinerary and as place after place had been destroyed by US military I would interrupt my translating to say sorry.
Another of my best friends is a Vietnamese woman I lived with in Southeast Asia for a year. My grandpa fought in Vietnam. I remember the night this came up over dinner and the mood went from lively to somber. I didn’t say to my friend when she showed me pictures of the residual human cost of the war, “Hey, I’m only 33. I’ve never killed a person in my life. Vietnam wasn’t my fault. Maybe you guys deserved it.” None of that. But these are the kind of responses I get to confessions of racial trauma. I can’t apologize on behalf of America or on behalf of our military and that's not really what I was doing. I apologized for the pain my group had inflicted on her people. It didn’t matter to me that it wasn’t my fault. This was my friend and the damage was real, her feelings were real, and my sympathy was real.
The Curse of Individualism
Earlier this year, my plan to read through the Bible in chronological order got waylaid in Leviticus. But, at two months and just four chapters in, I came across a passage about the collective unintentional guilt of the Israelite community:
“If the whole Israelite community sins unintentionally and does what is forbidden in any of the Lord’s commands, even though the community is unaware of the matter, when they realize their guilt and the sin they committed becomes known, the assembly must bring a young bull as a sin offering and present it before the tent of meeting.”
Moses, in giving the rules for proper worship and sacrifice said that a blameless living sacrifice must be offered for both sins of a group and sins committed unintentionally.
As Americans, our individualism is a matter of national pride. In the same article cited above about Blacks thinking in terms of Blacks, Metta contrasts that with white thinking: “White people do not think in terms of we. White people have the privilege to interact with the social and political structures of our society as individuals. You are “you,” I am “one of them.” Whites are often not directly affected by racial oppression even in their own community, so what does not affect them locally has little chance of affecting them regionally or nationally. They have no need, nor often any real desire, to think in terms of a group. They are supported by the system, and so are mostly unaffected by it.” Individualism that inhibits Christian unity displeases God. Paul urges the Christians in Philippi to take Jesus as their example, “Each of you should look not only to your own interest, but also to the interests of others.”
Wounds From a Friend Can Be Trusted But An Enemy Multiplies Kisses
I am not off the hook in this quest for unity, either. I perpetuate false peace. As Amy Carmichael, a missionary to India, said: "If I fear to hold another to the highest goal because it is so much easier for me to avoid doing so, then I know nothing of Calvary love." If I weary in the pursuit of true unity to preserve my feelings; if, in buckling under the strain, I capitulate to ease my discomfort rather than look to Jesus who yokes himself with me and offers rest; if I put my hurt feelings before the good of the church; if I am content to abandon the true beauty, well-being, and wholeness of the body because I cannot see with eyes of faith that God brings fruit in His time and in His ways I am just as guilty of peddling counterfeit peace.
As necessary as the Holy Spirit is in uncovering the biases in our hearts, the work of bearing patiently with our brothers and sisters in love can no more be done without it.
We must, whether through tears, tiredness, hardship, misunderstandings, slow and labored strides, and the smallest seedlings of faith, continue to point our brothers and sisters toward justice because this is not simply our cause-- it is the Lord’s. We can not consider ourselves above being patient with those who are slow to learn for we can find no example for that in the life and love of Jesus. While our otherness has perhaps primed us more easily for empathy, it is a gift given that we may exercise it. We are stewards of the sensibilities that that gift endows and from those to whom much is given, much is required. Let us be instruments of grace.
Do Not Grow Weary In Doing Good, For At The Proper Time We Will Reap A Harvest If We Do Not Give Up
To my fellow weary Christians of color, I know that the world will whisper in your ear, "You owe them nothing.” There is no ear among the church unvisited by this lie. But Ephesians 4:25 says otherwise--we are members of one another. 1 Corinthians 12:21-26 says the eye cannot say to the hands, "I do not need you" and the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable. God has put the parts of the body together so that there should be no division but that its parts should have equal care for each other. If one part suffers every part suffers with it.”
We are no less caught in the clutches of injustice than they in the clutches of privilege. We, as people of color, may suffer our scourge publicly while our white brothers and sisters suffer a no less unyielding yet subtle perversion. Ours leaves its lashes on our bodies and deprives us of opportunities on earth while theirs, though often undiagnosed, is never without effect on their soul. I cannot help but think of Jesus’ words that it is hard for the rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven and I cannot help but see why.
So let’s be in this together. I promise to do my best not to strain even if you don't promise to reflect.